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Cash's 80th birthday, legacy to be celebrated

Johnny Cash is still cool.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Johnny Cash is still cool.

Like Elvis or Hank Williams, Cash retains a certain cachet in current popular culture even in death. More proof of his enduring legend is on the way as plans to celebrate what would have been the American icon's 80th birthday unfold later this month and year.

There will be a groundbreaking on the project to preserve Cash's childhood home in Dyess, Ark., on Feb. 26, his birthday. A new Cash museum will open in Nashville later this year and several music releases are expected to commemorate the anniversary of his birth. There are three documentaries in the works as well.

Interest remains as high as ever more than eight years after his death in 2003 at 71 of complications from diabetes.

"He appealed to people and still appeals to people who have a small CD collection and live in middle America just as much as the punk on the streets of Germany," Cash's son, John Carter Cash, said. "And that's sort of magical the way he's been able to do that still, that his image still draws people from all walks of life."

The Cash family is most excited about the project in Dyess. Many of Cash's children and grandchildren will attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project, an undertaking led by Arkansas State University.

Fundraising for the project began last summer and the family and university hope to restore the house Cash grew up in and its outbuildings. ASU also has taken over other buildings of historic importance that remain from the New Deal era Dyess Colony and want to reflect not only Cash's life, but the reality of The Great Depression.

The government put 500 families in homes with small agricultural land grants at a time of great hardship, and Rosanne Cash says without exaggeration that it saved her family. Her father would later become a citizen of the world, but his time in Dyess was instrumental in shaping his sound and his world view.

Rosanne Cash says of all the thousands of tributes and moments of recognition her father has received over the years, the restoration "has really captured my heart."

The house is being restored based on photos and the memories of relatives. It will be furnished and decorated as it was when the family lived there in the 1930s and '40s. ASU plans to establish a museum and a space for workshops, demonstrations and classes.

"It's so amazing how you don't realize how important these touchstones in your ancestry are until your parents are gone," Rosanne Cash said. "There's this paradox that you can't really feel it or realize it while they're here, so there's a tremendous amount of poignancy and embracing it and protecting it and preserving it for future generations, and drawing my own children into it. It's a big deal to me."

Bill Miller, a Cash memorabilia collector and the operator of the Johnny Cash website is behind the Nashville museum, which will be located on Music City's busy Lower Broadway tourist strip, "right in the middle of the hubbub," John Carter Cash said. The museum will be filled with pieces from The House of Cash, which closed in 1999, and other items endowed by the family.

"He's been an incredible supporter of my dad and one of the largest collectors of memorabilia," Rosanne Cash said. "If anybody has the whole structure to put up a museum, he does. So I have a lot of trust in him and I think it's great at this point. I think he'll do something with dignity and class that's historically important, not some kitschy thing. I'm very interested in seeing what he does."

No celebration of Cash would be complete without music. There's been plenty since his death, including the completion of his American Recordings work with producer Rick Rubin and the start of a bootleg series. The two-CD "Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth," focusing on gospel and spiritual songs recorded in the 1970s and '80s, will be out April 3 and will include some unreleased material. And Columbia/Legacy plans other releases later this year, including a large box set, but details on those projects are not yet available.

Whatever is released will find a willing audience, eager to hear new material or learn something new about The Man in Black.

"Dad was, I don't know how else to put it but to say, he was the real deal," John Carter Cash said. "He had a humility and a charm and a style and a charisma that just still attracts people to him. Through his music, his writings and the other people who study his life, it's inspiring. And I think that's a great thing that people are inspired by my father still."